Players on Madison

Our regular monthly dining quartet had our May rendezvous at Players on Madison last night.  The room is a sleek, modern space.  The front is a wall of glass facing Madison Avenue in Lakewood.  In the back of the main room there is a bar with a railing separating it from the dining area.  Hanging strings of frosted glass discs help to further demarcate this from the rest of the room, simultaneously defining the bar area while leaving a sense of openness.  A thick wall runs down the center of the restaurant, reminding us that this was once two distinct storefronts.  Now, though, that wall has seen large portals carved out of it, creating “windows” from which one can see all of the action.  Hardwood floors, a stamped tin ceiling and curves of tiny halogen lamps complete the effect.

The extensive menu is covers a lot of ground.  The first section of starters includes Appetizers, Pizzettes and Salads.  An array of Entrees follows.  The back of the menu is a “build-your-own” Pizza and Pasta section.  You can choose from a variety of pastas or pizza crust options and top these with a lengthy selection of toppings, running the gamut from anchovies or red onion to chorizo or scallops.  The bottom of the page lists some Specialty Pizzas that offer unusual combinations.  Finally, our server dropped off a “Guest Check” listing the days specials.  After securing our cocktails from the bar, she circled back to explain the specials in greater detail.

We started the evening with an intriguing idea:  Tempura Strawberries.  Fresh strawberries were stuffed with goat cheese, dipped in tempura batter and flash-fried.  Plated with balsamic syrup and honey, it was certainly an unusual combination.  We decided that while they were delicious, eating the full serving of six berries would have been a bit much.  I also think this would have worked as a dessert course, straddling the line between sweet and savory.  A bread basket arrived with this course, offering slices of baguette and an herb bread, flecked with bright green.  These were presented with garlic herb butter.

After an appropriate pause, we received our individual apps.  There was a Roasted Chicken, Corn and Spinach Spring Roll, served with Asian slaw and Thai chili aioli.  Next up was a large plate of Lobster Nachos, one of the evening’s specials.  Large chunks of lobster were piled onto crispy tortilla triangles and garnished with melted cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo and sliced fresh jalapenos. Togarashi Encrusted Ahi Tuna Nachos layered with guacamole, grape tomatoes and citrus creme fraiche featured beautiful, dark red slabs of tuna.  Our final appetizer was a trio of Banana Peppers stuffed with Chorizo and Manchego, served with a full-flavored tomato and corn ragout. Out of all of these, the Lobster Nachos were the group’s favorite.

My entree was one of my favorite plates of the night.  Herb Marinated and Grilled Australian Lamb Loin, served alongside roasted fennel, portobello, artichoke hearts, chevre whipped potatoes, lavender essence and port reduction.  The thick slices of lamb, fanned out across the potatoes, were a perfect, rosy red inside.  Then there was Macaroni and Cheese – penne, herb grilled chicken, applewood smoked bacon and three cheese sauce.  This massive bowl arrived bubbling hot from the oven.  It was easily enough for three people!  While all of our portions had been generous throughout the evening, this one certainly won the prize for “Most Gargantuan!”  Next was a striking black bowl filled with housemade chevre raviolis, topped with a tumble of sauteed wild mushrooms and scented with truffle oil.  The sweetness of caramelized onion provided a nice counterpoint to the earthiness of all those fungi. To round out the table there was a pizza topped with portabello mushrooms and artichoke hearts.  The crust struck just the right balance between crispy and chewy.

By now we were quite full, but we could not resist the call of dessert.  We settled on the Chocolate Peanut Butter Pate.  This thick slab of dense chocolate was shot through with a vein of peanut butter goodness, the plate drizzled with a slash of caramel sauce and decorated with a poof of whipped cream.  Taking a riff on the peanut butter cup of our childhood, this iteration took the idea to the next level.  Even with four of us working on it, there was no way we could finish this confection.  It was like a slice from the World’s Largest Truffle and boy was it good.

When we rose from the table, we realized we had been there more than three and a half hours.  Our server never made us feel rushed, allowing us to set the pace for our evening.  She responded to our requests with grace and a smile.  We felt pampered and well-fed when we left.

Players menu is large enough that dining here does not need to be an expensive undertaking.  As noted, the portions are generous.  One could certainly make a meal from two of the apps, or an app and a pizzette.  (Happy Hour in the bar promises $5 cocktails and half-price appetizers, too!)  It’s also possible to splurge, as we did, and enjoy a whole succession of courses.  Starters run from $8 to $13; entrees from $16 to $25; desserts were all under  $10.  There is something for everyone on this menu, including a burger and fries.  The pizza and pasta section allows one to customize a meal to fit almost any taste.  I would happily return here anytime!

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